Friday 30 March 2012

The Skull (1965)

Amicus were best known for their horror anthology movies but not all their productions fell into that category. There were also movies like The Skull, which is a pretty fair little horror flick.

Like most of Amicus’s horror offerings it could be described as gothic horror but in a contemporary setting.

Peter Cushing plays Dr Christopher Maitland, a man who is something of an expert on the occult. Not that he believes in any of it - it’s more of an academic interest. He is also an avid collector of occult paraphernalia, an enthusiasm he shares with his friend Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee).

Maitland has a little man named Marco (Patrick Wymark) who procures items of particular interest for him, all choice items for the discerning collector who is prepared not to ask too many question about the provenance of their puchases. Marco offers him a life of the Marquis de Sade, bound in human skin, and tells him he has an even more desirable item for sale. It is nothing less than the skull of de Sade.

It turns out that it was stolen from Sir Matthew Phillips but Phillips is glad to be rid of it and warns Maitland to have nothing to do with it. Like Maitland he is a confirmed sceptic on the subject of the occult, it being merely a fascinating and esoteric hobby, but he makes an exception in the case of the Marquis’ skull which he believes to be truly evil.

Maitland soon has cause to wonder if perhaps his friend was right. After obtaining the skull he has disturbing dreams that seem more real than dreams should be. If they really are just dreams. These provide director Freddie Francis (a dual Academy Award winner as a cinematographer) with the opportunity to do some rather effective nightmare sequences.

There are of course worse horrors to come.

There are flashbacks to the early 19th century when the skull first started to work its evil but most of the horror in this movie strikes its victims in the apparently safe settings of their own homes.

The problem facing horror directors in the days before CGI was always how soon to reveal the monster, given that the monster was not always going to be convincing enough to live up to the build-up. Francis doesn’t have that problem here since the monster is an unseen disembodied terror. He does however have the problem that he has to show something and he solves it fairly successfully with shots of the skull floating about. As you’d expect when the director is himself a distinguished cinematographer he and his director of photography John Wilcox pull off these scenes and the nightmare sequences rather well without trying to get too ambitious or too gimmicky.

While this movie has a dream cast of cult supporting players - Christopher Lee, Patrick Magee, Nigel Green and Michael Gough - it’s Peter Cushing who has to carry the film while they are left very much in the background. Wymark is the only one with a relatively substantial role and he gives a fine understated performance. Surprisingly enough (given the presence of Patrick Magee, Nigel Green and Michael Gough) there’s no scenery-chewing in this movie. The horror is the kind of horror that sneaks up on you without any fanfare.

There aren’t really any villains as such. Even the disreputable Marco is a pretty harmless if not overly honest individual. The horror comes from the fact that it’s a very decent, rather bookish and very gentle man who finds himself at the centre of a vortex of evil. This puts a lot of pressure on Cushing as an actor but as usual he is more than equal to the challenge.

Milton Subotsky wrote the script based on a Robert Bloch short story. Bloch provided the raw material for some of Amicus’s best films such as Asylum. There’s not really all that much to the story but Cushing’s performance combined with Freddie Francis’s skills as a director and his subtle visual flair are enough to make this an impressive piece of horror film-making.

The Region 1 DVD lacks extras but it does full justice to Francis’s rich colour palette and looks splendid.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Dead Ringer (1964)

Dead Ringer saw Bette Davis settling into the grande dames guignol phase of her career after her surprise success in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? This one is more of a straight psychological thriller, except for the presence of Davis which puts it straight back into grande dames guignol territory.

Davis had already played twin sisters (one good and one evil) in A Stolen Life in 1946. The story (by Rian James) which formed the basis of Dead Ringer was already being hawked around the studios at that time, but nobody would touch it because of the similarities to A Stolen Life. It ended up being filmed in Mexico as the highly acclaimed La Otra (The Other One) with Dolores del Rio, considered to be one of the masterpieces of Mexican cinema and a huge hit in Spanish-speaking markets. Meanwhile Michael Curtiz was keen to direct a Hollywood version but couldn’t get anyone to come up with a script that satisfied him.

Finally in 1964 Warner Brothers got interested and cast Bette Davis as the twins. Davis had her choice of director and picked her Now, Voyager co-star Paul Henreid who had established himself by this time as a reliable movie and television director.

As the film opens Maggie DeLorca is burying her husband Frank and is re-united with her long-lost twin sister Edie. Edie had had a wartime love affair with Frank, then a colonel. She had made the mistake of introducing her new beau to her much more glamorous sister Maggie, who promptly persuaded the handsome and wealthy colonel to marry her. For nearly twenty years after that the sisters had not spoken.

Edie has never forgiven Maggie. Maggie is now a rich widow while Edie ekes out a living running a seedy cocktail lounge. Maggie makes some conciliatory moves but her condescending manner just makes Edie more resentful. Why should Maggie have this glamorous and wealthy life that should have been hers? But perhaps it’s not too late. Edie hatches a plan to get that life.

When Edie is found dead, apparently having committed suicide, her boyfriend Detective-Sergeant Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden) is devastated. During the course of the perfunctory investigation (it seems like an obvious suicide) he meets Maggie. He’d never known Edie had a sister. Meanwhile Maggie seems strangely changed. She chain-smokes just like her sister Edie although Maggie had given up smoking years earlier.

Maggie had been less than an ideal wife. She’d had a lover, the rather sleazy Tony Collins (Peter Lawford), who is now puzzled by Maggie’s coldness. So far it’s the usual template for a good twin-evil twin movie but this one has many more plot twists up its sleeve.

The support cast is excellent and Malden is solid, as always, as the good-natured but dogged cop. Lawford is delightfully oily. But this is Bette Davis’s picture and no-one is left in any doubt of this. Bette Davis is relatively restrained by Bette Davis standards but she includes enough outrageous high camp moments to keep fans of late-period Bette Davis movies happy. A restrained Bette Davis performance is equivalent to a bravura performance by anybody else and it’s her presence in the movie that makes it more than just a straightforward murder mystery - that pushes it into cult movie camp classic territory.

The final result is a clever psychological thriller with a well-crafted script and with Paul Henreid doing a fine job as director. What distinguishes it from other movies using the same good twin-evil twin plot device is the psychological complexity - in this case the good twin has a very dark side while the evil twin is not a mere monster. They really do seem like twin sisters, both having the same psychological components in their personalities, just in different proportions. But they’re both driven by the same desires - Maggie is simply much more ruthless in getting what she wants while Edie represses her desires, but they’re still there, seething below the surface.

Mention must be made of André Previn’s superb score. The movie was filmed largely at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, a favourite location for film-makers making this sort of movie, and for good reason.

The success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the popularity of gothic horror at the time were undoubtedly an influence on Henreid’s approach and he throws in some macabre touches and some bad taste moments to delight fans of the aforementioned grande dames guignol genre.

The Warner Home Video is a nice package with a good print and with extras including a commentary track, although the commentary gets a bit tedious after a while. The movie is camp enough without a campy commentary track. It does provide some good Bette Davis quotes though, such as, “In my day the best special effect was talent."

A must-see for Bette Davis fans. As one contemporary critic put it, if you love Bette Davis you’ll love this movie because you get a double dose of Bette Davis; if you don’t like her you’ll hate it for the same reason. This is classic Bette Davis.

Saturday 24 March 2012

Murderers’ Row (1966)

By the mid-60s everyone wanted to jump on the James Bond bandwagon. The folks at Columbia Pictures were no exception. What they came up with turned out to be among the most successful and among the best of the Bond rip-offs/spoofs - the Matt Helm series.

Murderers’ Row in 1966 was the second of the four films, all staring Dean Martin as super-cool super-spy Matt Helm.

This time around Matt is up against super-villain Julian Wall (Karl Malden) who has kidnapped an American scientist to get the plans for a high-powered death ray with which he intends to destroy Washington. Why does he want to destroy Washington? Because he’s a super-villain. But first he has to get the free world’s four top counter-espionage agents out of the way. Including Matt Helm. He appears to have succeeded, but Matt and his boss MacDonald (James Gregory) have concocted a plan to fake Matt’s death.

Needless to say the assassination plot involved a glamorous model, since Helm’s cover is that he is a top glamour photographer. Hanging around with beautiful half-clad women while taking photos and drinking lots of booze is a pretty easy cover for Matt Helm to maintain, especially when he’s played by Dean Martin. Miss January’s attempt to kill him misfires but having the arch-villain thinking he’s dead allows Matt to assume another cover and go snooping around Julian Wall’s private island.

Matt’s investigations lead him to more glamorous women, women like Suzie (Ann-Margret). That’s the great thing about being a top secret agent - plots by super-villains to Destroy Civilisation As We Know It invariably involve lots of glamorous women. Suzie turns out to be the daughter of the kidnaped scientist. She also proves to be a remarkably useful ally. Suzie is a Swinging 60s gal which gives the film-makers an ideal opportunity to throw in lots of scenes with far-out dancing in discotheques backed by groovy bands. It also provides the opportunity for Ann-Margret to wear some incredibly over-the-top 60s fashions.

Of course there has to be beautiful but evil woman mixed up in the plot as well, in this case the woman being Coco Duquette (played by Camilla Sparv). And the diabolical criminal mastermind has to have a henchman, in this case a big mean guy with a very prominent metal plate in his head.

Luckily Matt has some secret weapons at his disposal. The gadgets are actually quite cool. Columbia had no intention of spending the kind of money that the Brits were spending on the Bond movies so the gadgets had to be the kind that are cool but won’t cost the studio much money. The ideal in this sort of situation is to come up with gadgets that are clever and witty and can be used as the basis for running gags as well as taking out bad guys. Murderers’ Row scores well in this department. The delayed action gun is my particular favourite.

This movie is actually not quite as campy as you might expect. It is definitely campy but it maintains a nice balance between the jokiness and the action. The hovercraft chase is a nice touch. Why hovercraft? Because no spy movie had featured a hovercraft chase prior to this, plus diabolical criminal masterminds love high-tech stuff that serves no purpose besides looking cool. It’s a taste I share.

Naturally much of the success of a tongue-in-cheek spy movie depends on having the right lead actor. Dean Martin does the job admirably. It’s an effortless, smooth and cleverly self-mocking performance. The movie is loaded with Dean Martin and Rat Pack in-jokes and Martin’s delivery is always impeccable.

You also need a good villain. Karl Malden is not as memorable or as ostentatious as the best of the Bond villains but he’s quite adequate. In fact I quite like the idea of a diabolical criminal mastermind who looks like he might be an insurance salesman from Des Moines, apart from his desire to destroy whole cities.

Ann-Margret is a terrific female lead. She’s ditzy and cute and outrageous but she’s also smart and resourceful. I like the fact that they didn’t try to make her a kickass female martial arts type heroine but she’s still able to save the day on several occasions. She uses her wits rather than action heroine skills but she’s clever enough to get the better of the bad guys.

Columbia’s Matt Helm Lounge DVD boxed set gives us all four movie on separate discs and the widescreen transfer of Murderers’ Row can’t be faulted.

It’s all non-stop fun and hugely enjoyable.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

In 1938 Universal made a surprising discovery. They re-released the original Frankenstein and Dracula and the two movies, which had cleaned up at the box-office at the beginning of the decade, again did big business. It appeared that the movie-going public’s appetite for horror was as strong as ever. Universal then made the surprisingly sensible decision not only to do a third Frankenstein movie, but to do it properly - with a good cast, a talented director and on a lavish scale. The result, in 1939, was the excellent Son of Frankenstein.

The studio further decided that the cast would be headlined by their two biggest horror stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, with Peter Lorre as the son of the infamous Dr Frankenstein. Lorre turned them down (he was growing tired of playing psychopathic villains) so they turned to another notable screen villain, Basil Rathbone. It was another inspired decision. As an added bonus they threw in Lionel Atwill as well (always a good move).

Rathbone is Dr Wolf Frankenstein. And he’s not your typical mad scientist at all. He’s a mild-mannered college professor who has spent his career in the US trying to live down the infamous reputation of his father, the Dr Frankenstein who created the notorious monster. He’s a kindly and rather harmless fellow. He’s inherited the Frankenstein Castle and now he thinks it would be a fine idea to move in there with his wife and his young son Why he thought this would be a good idea remains a mystery.

Of course the villagers hate and fear him. They do have reason to be upset. There has been a mysterious series of murders. It can’t be the monster. He was destroyed. But still, these murders are odd.

Wolf Frankenstein naturally has to go and investigate his father’s laboratory. There he finds Ygor. Ygor is a blacksmith by trade but used to earn extra money robbing graves for the elder Dr Frankenstein. He was hanged for his crimes, but survived. His neck was broke but the spinal cord was left intact and he now has a protruding bone in his neck, giving him the classic horror movie hunched appearance. He is now legally dead and therefore beyond the reach of the law, but he has not forgotten the eight man on the jury who convicted him.

Ygor is not the only member of the dead who is still alive. The Monster still lives, apparently in a kind of coma. The Monster was Ygor’s only friend so he begs the younger Dr Frankenstein to bring him back to life. Wolf Frankenstein’s scientific curiosity is aroused along with the idea that he can restore his late father’s reputation by continuing his work. His efforts are unavailing but a few days later his son mentions a giant he has seen and Wolf realises that the Monster walks again. He has other problems - there have been more murders and the village police chief Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) is starting to get distinctly more cool towards him. Krogh lost an arm to the Monster in childhood so he has a personal interest in the scientific endeavours of the Frankenstein family.

The Monster is doing more than walking, the villagers are getting scared and angry and Wolf Frankenstein faces the prospect that history is about to repeat itself.

Boris Karloff again plays the Monster, with Bela Lugosi relegated to the subsidiary role of the the former Dr Frankenstein’s assistant Ygor. Or at least that’s how it seems at first. Actually Ygor is a much more interesting and much more substantial role than that of the Monster. Lugosi gets a lot of screen time and in fact dominates the film. It’s one of the rare occasions in his later career when Lugosi got the better of the deal from Universal. It’s a great role and Lugosi grasps his opportunity with both hands, delivering a powerhouse performance that is one of the highlights of his career. It may even be his best ever performance.

A lot of people dislike Basil Rathbone’s performance, which seems incomprehensible to me. Wolf Frankenstein is a man who, right from the start, finds himself in a situation he is hopelessly ill-prepared for and he starts to lose control of events almost immediately. Rathbone’s performance edges closer and closer to hysteria, just as it should. Wolf is a gentle decent man who is trapped in ever-increasing chaos with no way out. I think it’s a fine performance.

Lionel Atwill is excellent as a man trying to do his duty and trying not to let his personal feelings get in the way. Atwill has a great deal of fun with the mechanical arm which adds a strange touch that is both grotesque and oddly moving.

Willis Cooper wrote the original screenplay, and when it was rejected wrote a second version. Producer-director Rowland V. Lee disliked both versions and started rewriting it himself. He was still rewriting it when shooting began and there never really was a finished final script - Lee just kept rewriting it as he went along. Surprisingly enough it hangs together quite nicely.

Art director Jack Otterson contributed enormously to the film’s success with some of the best sets ever seen in a Universal horror film. All the visual elements in this production are impressive.

This movie was really the last of the Universal horror movies to be an A-picture right from the start. The already generous budget blew out even further as shooting progressed slowly. Luckily for Universal it didn’t matter - the movie was a resounding box-office triumph and made a tidy profit. The budget blow-out did scare Universal though and contributed to their decision to make any future horror movies on much smaller budgets. In hindsight this may have been a mistake - Son of Frankenstein proved that a good well-made handsomely mounted horror film equals box-office gold.

And this is a very good horror film. Visually it’s the equal of anything Universal did, it has a solid story and it has complex characters and great performances (especially from Lugosi). You couldn’t ask for more. Highly recommended.

Sunday 18 March 2012

King of the Wild (1931)

Even by the standards of serials King of the Wild is an outrageous concoction. Outrageous but fun.

It was made by Mascot Pictures in 1931, Mascot being one of those Poverty Row studios that specialised in serials, cheap, westerns and the like.

Robert Grant is a young America who just happens to bear a striking resemblance to the Rajah of Rampur. The Rajah is accidentally killed in a tiger hunt and just before he dies he begs Grant to take his place for 48 hours until his brother arrives to assume the throne. The Rajah is worried that his evil cousin Prince Dakka will seize power. Unfortunately things go wrong and Grant finds himself accused of murdering the Rajah to seize the throne himself.

Grant has a letter from the Rajah that proves his innocence but it’s written in disappearing ink and he gets double-crossed by a crooked hunter named Harris. He’s thrown into prison but escapes and then travels to Darkest Africa to find Harris and retrieve the letter and clear his name.

He gets double-crossed again by a wily Arab named Mustapha (Boris Karloff). In fact Mustapha double-crosses everybody. Mustapha is trying to find the secret location of a fabulous diamond mine, a location known only to a young American named Tom Armitage. He uses the glamorous Mrs LaSalle to try to persuade Tom to reveal the location but Mrs LaSalle gets shot and Tom’s sister Muriel is accused of the murder.

Then the ship they’re on gets wrecked and all the wild animals escape and the survivors find their way to a native village but the native king gets murdered and the escaped lions and tigers are wandering about attacking people at random and the Africans want to kill Muriel for being a witch and the district officer gets shot and there’s a mysterious man in dark glasses who may hold the key to the mystery but then it’s also a possibility than an old lady called Mrs Colby who is really a Secret Service agent may hold the answers. And that only takes us halfway through the third of the twelve episodes! The plot gets more complicated after that!

Oh, and did I mention that the crooked hunter Harris has a ferocious ape-man as his henchman? There’s also a kidnapping by means of an elephant. What more could you want?

There’s silliness piled on silliness and ludicrous coincidences abound and there are endless unlikely plot twists. Which is what serials are all about. Where this one differs from most serials is that it has about four times as much plot as most of them. There are no filler episodes. Something outlandish happens every few minutes. The writers clearly believed that whenever nothing had happened for two minutes or so it was time for someone else to get shot or for another lion to suddenly leap out at somebody.

It’s an approach that works for me.

The acting is pretty terrible, apart from Boris Karloff who is having a great time being sinister and scheming.

There’s also enough political incorrectness in this serial to last most reasonable people a lifetime.

It’s available on DVD and it’s dirt cheap. If you’re a fan of serials then this is one you absolutely have to see.

Thursday 15 March 2012

The Girl in Lovers’ Lane (1959)

The Girl in Lovers’ Lane has a bit of a problem. The poster and the title both suggest a sleazy exploitation juvenile delinquent movie but really it tries to take itself quite seriously as a Social Problem movie.

The problem is that it didn’t have the budget or the production values to get itself taken seriously by the sorts of people who loved Social Problem movies back in 1959. It was always going to end up on the drive-in circuit where audiences were going to expect to see a sleazy exploitation juvenile delinquent movie.

Danny Winslow (Lowell Brown) is a pleasant if slightly naïve teenager who gets all broken up when his parents decide to divorce. So he run away from home. He tries hopping a freight train but his innocence gets him into trouble straight away. He gets beaten up. And then he wakes up in the freight train to find that a young drifter has stolen his wallet.

The drifter is Bix Dugan (Brett Halsey), but he’s actually not a bad sort. He gives the wallet back. And the money. If the kid had been just a common thief and the money had been stolen money (as he’d assumed) he’d have kept the wallet. But he’s not the type to steal from poor dumb innocent kids like Danny. Pretty soon he finds that Danny intends to follow him around like a lost puppy. Bix is tough and streetwise but he’s tolerant and hanging around with a lost puppy who has a big bankroll doesn’t seem like it would be too much of an ordeal. He won’t steal from Danny but if Danny wants to pay for them both to get some decent food and pay for a room so that Bix doesn’t have to sleep in freight cars for a while he’s not going to complain.

They end up in a small town called Sherman. There’s not much in Sherman but there’s a diner with a pretty waitress. Her name is Carrie (Joyce Meadows) and within about thirty seconds she’s developed a huge crush on Bix. Bix is a good-looking guy and Carrie is the sort of girl who’s always been afraid of boys but she thinks Bix is actually sensitive underneath his cynical exterior. Which he is.

It’s not all pleasantries though. The local juvenile delinquents decide Danny is an easy mark. And now Danny gets his first lesson in Being a Man. Bix explains that sometimes you have to fight rather than run away, so Bix and Danny do fight back and they manage to persuade the juvenile delinquents that they should look for easier marks elsewhere. In today’s era of Political Correctness it’s an unfashionable message but it has to be admitted that Bix has a point.

There are bigger problems to face. There’s the creepy town sleaze Jesse (Jack Elam) who is stalking Carrie. Bix figures that Jesse, while undeniably creepy, is no real threat. That turns out to be a Big Mistake that will have very fateful consequences indeed when the movie suddenly turns very dark indeed.

The most fatal and the most common error made by low-budget film-makers is slow pacing. The Girl in Lovers’ Lane certainly suffers from that fault.

It’s the sort of movie that modern audiences are going to mock (and the MST3K crowd apparently mocked it unmercifully). Director Charles R. Rondeau doesn’t have the skill or the budget to make this movie live up to its own ambitions and while it does have some exploitation elements it doesn’t have enough to make it as an exploitation flick.

The acting is actually rather good. Jack Elam is convincingly sinister and Brett Halsey is very good. Lowell Brown and Joyce Meadows are adequate. This probably counts against the movie as far as cult fans are concerned. We actually care what happens to the characters and Bix in particular is a character with a certain amount of depth. That tends to make it more difficult to enjoy the movie as just a goofy juvenile delinquent flick.

In this modern age most attention is going to be focused on the homoerotic subtext. That says more about this modern age than it does about the movie. A failure to comprehend a different era and an obsession with homoerotic subtexts mean that any older movie that deals with male friendship is going to be interpreted in this way. In fact there is no homoerotic subtext.

The Girl in Lovers’ Lane is a very unlucky movie that fails by virtue of the fact that it’s not good enough to be taken as seriously as it takes itself and it’s not bad enough to be a camp classic.

Monday 12 March 2012

The Greed of William Hart (1948)

The Greed of William Hart (or Horror Maniacs as it was known in the US), released in 1948, was the last of the great cycle of Tod Slaughter film melodramas. All were made very cheaply and rely almost entirely on Slaughter’s considerable screen presence. All are great fun.

Tod Slaughter’s long and very successful career was spent almost entirely in melodrama, on stage and on the screen. After his death in 1956 at the age of 70 he was soon forgotten but he has in recent years acquired something of a cult following. He is in fact one of the great horror stars, worthy to be ranked alongside names like Lugosi and Karloff. There was nothing remotely subtle about his performances but he was the quintessential melodrama villain, and always vastly entertaining.

The Greed of William Hart was originally entitled The Crimes of Burke and Hare but the threat of a lawsuit by the family of Hare forced the change in title.

The grisly careers of Burke and Hare inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Body Snatcher as well as countless movies. Among the most notable are the 1945 Val Lewton-produced The Body Snatcher and the excellent 1960
The Flesh and the Fiends, directed by John Gilling.

John Gilling in fact wrote the screenplay for The Greed of William Hart and served as assistant director.

In The Greed of William Hart the two murderers are Hart (Tod Slaughter) and Mr Moore (Henry Oscar). They supply cadavers to the noted Edinburgh surgeon and anatomist Dr Cox. Suitable fresh cadavers not always being easy to come by they have turned to murder in order to assure a ready supply.

Hugh Alston has his suspicions, as do the police, but without evidence no action can be taken. The disappearance of yet another young woman, the unfortunate Mary Patterson, proves to be Hart and Moore’s first slip-up. She was the niece of Dr Cox’s assistant and he recognised the body when it was delivered to the surgeon. But it is the over-confidence of Hart, combined with prodigious quantities of liquor, that will lead the murderers to make their fatal mistake.

On the whole the acting from the majority of the cast is wooden and unconvincing, but that doesn’t matter. Tod Slaughter was more than capable of carrying an entire film on his own and he’s in fine form. Henry Oscar as Mr Moore is rather good as well, and very creepy.

The production values are pretty much non-existent. This is a very low-budget movie. Oswald Mitchell directed and his approach is less than inspired. On the other hand Gilling’s script is quite serviceable. There’s no gore, this being a 1948 British production, but the subject matter is gruesome enough to inspire chills.

Unfortunately the only DVD release of this movie is the Alpha Video release, and the quality is truly dire, even by Alpha Video standards. Worse still, this print has been cut from the original 80 minutes to just 53 minutes.

If you’re a Tod Slaughter fan none of this matters. He’s such a delight to watch and so few of his movies are available that you’ll want this one anyway. If you haven’t yet discovered the outrageous world of Tod Slaughter then Maria Marten, or the Murder in the Red Barn or Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street are better places to start. Or just grab the Alpha Video Tod Slaughter boxed set - all the movies included are tremendously enjoyable.

Friday 9 March 2012

the many film Jekylls and Hydes

On the subject of movie adaptations of Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Hammer actually attempted this subject twice. Their first attempt was The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll in 1960, directed by Terence Fisher (also released under the title Jekyll’s Inferno). Not as unconventional as Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde but still an excellent and very interesting version.

I still think the best-ever straightforward adaptation was the 1920 silent Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with John Barrymore. I've never been a huge fan of the much-praised 1931 Hollywood version and the 1941 version is simply awful in my opinion.

If you want a truly bizarre version there's always Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 Dr Jekyll and his Women. It's worth seeing just for Udo Kier, but then anything is worth seeing for Udo Kier.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Hammer’s 1971 Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is a sort of late 19th century gothic mixed grill. It combines the Jack the Ripper murders, the grisly story of Burke and Hare the body snatchers and Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic short novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

These strands are woven together quite cleverly in Brian Clemens’ screenplay. The result is one of the most interesting of the later Hammer horror movies.

Dr Jekyll (Ralph Bates) is a dedicated medical researcher on the verge of an important breakthrough which could put an end to some of mankind’s most feared diseases. Then a chance remark by his friend Professor Robertson (Gerald Sim) leads him onto a different tack. Robertson tells him that while his work is undoubtedly important it’s so painstakingly slow that he’s likely to die before completing it. Jekyll realises he has a point. If only he could somehow prolong his life sufficiently to be sure of finishing his work.

Surely such a thing is impossible. Or is it? Dr Jekyll believes there may be a way. His new line of research requires some raw materials that are rather difficult to obtain. He suspects that female hormones may hold the key. He needs to get hold of a large supply, and for that he needs corpses - corpses of young women. Luckily (or perhaps unluckily) he has a source, a worker named Byker (Philip Madoc) at the morgue who supplies cadavers to doctors. When this source proves inadequate Byker suggests that a certain Mr Burke and Mr Hare may be able to help. Their prices are high and it’s best not to ask too many questions but the cadavers they supply are certainly fresh.

Dr Jekyll makes some progress, testing out his new theories using himself as a guinea pig. There is an unexpected side effect. The elixir he has discovered turns him, temporarily, into a woman! A very attractive woman. But this female alter ego (played by Martine Beswick) proves to have her own distinctive personality, and some unfortunate habits.

He explains the apparent presence of a woman in his rooms by claiming his sister is staying with him. A certain Mrs Hyde.

The beginnings of Jekyll’s new line of research coincides with the first of a series of gruesome mutilation murders. Professor Robertson suspects that the Whitechapel Murderer may be connected with his friend Dr Jekyll. But by this time Dr Jekyll is losing the battle of wills with Mrs Hyde.

With a fine script and with one of Hammer’s best directors, Roy Ward Baker, at the helm this is an original and entertaining variation on Stevenson’s story. Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick do bear some resemblance to each other and having two actors playing the two halves of Jekyll’s personality works well. The transformation scenes are very effectively rendered. Bates and Beswick are both good, with Bates giving possibly his best ever performance.

The violence is quite graphic by Hammer standards, in keeping with the growing 1970s trend towards gore. There’s some nudity and it’s cleverly integrated into the story, reflecting Dr Jekyll’s fascination with his new female body.

The movie also taps into the 70s fashion for androgyny and gender-bending. It’s a fairly successful attempt by Hammer to add a new and fresh twist to old themes and to appeal to 70 tastes without abandoning the gothic horror roots that had served the company so well. Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is one of the best of the later Hammer films ad is highly recommended.

Optimum’s Region 2 DVD is adequate although rather grainy at times.

Sunday 4 March 2012

The Angry Red Planet (1959)

Even by the standards of cheesy 50s sci-fi movies The Angry Red Planet is very very cheesy indeed. This is cheese with an extra helping of cheese covered in cheese sauce with sprinkles of more cheese. But it’s fun in its own way.

Contact is lost with the first Earth space mission to Mars soon after it arrives on the red planet. Then two months later the spaceship re-enters Earth orbit. There’s still no contact with the crew so the craft is landed by remote control. The landing is just a scene of a rocket launch played in reverse! Great stuff.

Only two of the four crew members have returned to Earth. The spaceship commander, Colonel Thomas O’Bannion, is suffering from an unknown infection. No-one seems the least bit concerned that he might spread this infection to everyone on Earth. The other survivor is Dr Iris Ryan, the only female member of the crew.

Since all the spacecraft’s records have been erased Dr Ryan is the only possible source of information that might shed light on this mystery. She tells the story of the mission in flashback.

At first the only life they found on Mars was plant life. That seemed harmless enough, but looks can be deceptive. The Martian flora includes gigantic carnivorous plants that feed on passing astronauts. And soon they find even stranger life forms, like the huge spider-rat type thing that is 40 feet high and distinctly unfriendly. Eventually they discover a city. There is intelligent life here, and the intelligent life delivers an ominous warning to our space travellers although we don’t find out the contents of the warning until the end of the movie.

And worst of all, there’s the amoeba thing. This is no ordinary amoeba. It’s the Mother Of All Amoeba. It’s much bigger than the spaceship and like the carnivorous plant it eats astronauts. It also shows signs of possibly eating spaceships. And how can you kill an amoeba? There is only one thing that can do that, and can they discover it in time? Since we already know the spaceship returns to Earth the answer is obviously yes.

But what have they brought back with them?

The story is pretty silly and the special effects are crude but it has to be admitted that the giant spider-rat type thing is a pretty cool concept. The scenes on the Martian surface are filmed in the revolutionary new Cine-Magic process! Which turns out to be just a solarised red tint, the main advantage of which is to disguise the cheapness of the special effects and the crudity of the matte paintings. Except that it doesn’t - the effects still look dirt cheap and the matte paintings still look very crude and obvious, in a red-tinted way.

The scenes of the spaceship landings and the spaceship in flight are probably the cheesiest you will ever see. The spaceship interior doesn’t look too bad but the spacesuits are pretty lame.

Despite its obvious cheapness this AIP production was surprisingly filmed in colour.

The acting is terrible and the dialogue is excruciating. Colonel O’Bannion is remarkably sleazy. It’s clear that the success of the mission is of secondary importance compared to the far more vital project of having his wicked way with Dr Ryan. But she loves him anyway. There is of course one character whose job is to act as comic relief. I’m sure that like me you will be praying for him to be eaten by the next carnivorous plant they encounter.

The warning from the Martians turns out to to be the usual predictable stuff about the wickedness and violence of human beings.

I caught this one on cable TV but it is available on DVD in MGM’s Midnite Movies range. The print screened on cable was reasonable if not outstanding.

So is it worth seeing? If you’re a fan of cheerfully goofy 1950s sci-fi movies the answer is yes, it’s mindless fun. You’ll need lots of popcorn. And probably lots of alcohol. Especially the alcohol.